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April 01, 2010

A victory for “reverse land reform”

Posted in: Land Tenure, U.S. Aid

In our December report on U.S.-funded counterinsurgency programs in Colombia, we discussed a major threat to these programs’ success: populations’ fear of a “land grab.”

Much hinges on land tenure in places like the Montes de María, a region near the Caribbean coast where USAID has been supporting a Colombian government “Fusion Center” for about a year. This small zone saw some of Colombia’s most intense violence in the early 2000s, when paramilitaries carried out a string of massacres whose names (El Salado, Chengue, Mampuján, Macayepo, and dozens more) remain notorious today.

The paramilitary offensive displaced most of many communities’ populations; nine or ten years later, only a minority have returned to their lands.

These lands are fertile, and with the near-total disappearance of leftist guerrillas from the zone since 2007, the Montes de María have become much less violent. As a result, land prices are skyrocketing, and speculators are looking to buy up the small parcels held by displaced, or recently returned, farmers. According to a March 6 article in Colombia’s Semana magazine:

Some years ago, large investors – the majority from Medellín – arrived in the Montes de María to buy parcels from campesinos who had been displaced and had become indebted to banks. In a town-hall meeting with President Álvaro Uribe in El Carmen de Bolívar, several farmworkers denounced that intermediaries are massively buying land at low prices. The campesinos said that the buyers or middlemen arrive shortly after visits from bill-collectors announcing to them that their lands could be foreclosed upon. Cornered, with no other choice, the campesinos were selling.

At the August 2008 town-hall meeting, President Uribe exhorted the local citizenry, “Don’t sell your land!” Meanwhile Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that loans to landholders who were displaced should be renegotiated or forgiven. But this rarely happens for a variety of reasons, from the lack of necessary paperwork to farmers being unaware of their rights.

In response to this situation, the authorities in Montes de María have temporarily prohibited the sales of thousands of hectares of landholdings. Most of these are small parcels handed out in the 1970s-1990s by Colombia’s normally ineffective land-reform agency. Semana reports:

As an official of the Bolívar departmental government explained, the intention of these restrictions on land sales is to keep land from concentrating in few hands, thus affecting thousands of campesinos’ return after being expelled by paramilitary violence in the zone. And the philosophy of protecting those lands not only has to do with legal buyers; it also seeks to keep illegal groups from obligating campesinos to sell at low prices. Throughout the country about two million hectares are protected for the same purposes.

This “freeze” in land sales has modestly allayed farmers’ fears that the U.S.-funded “Integrated Action” program might pose a threat to their landholdings. Although the stated goal of the U.S.-supported “Fusion Center” is to assist the return of displaced communities, fears of a “land grab” are rife in the Montes de María. For many, the prospect of a stronger state presence in the zone implies the stronger presence of institutions not only tied to the elites who sponsored the paramilitaries 10 years ago, but also tied to the shadowy groups of investors who are buying up land right now. The freeze in sales offers some security from the threat of a “land grab.”

But that freeze may not be in place much longer. At the beginning of March, a judge in El Carmen de Bolívar, one of the biggest municipalities in the Montes de María, set a very troubling precedent. At the request of a group of displaced campesinos who wanted to sell their lands, the judge lifted the “freeze” for 40 landholdings, totaling about 1,000 hectares, so that they could be sold to two Medellín investors from a company called Agropecuaria Tacaloa.

Semana warns:

With the decision of the El Carmen de Bolívar judge comes the possibility of the massive sale of thousands of hectares that until now were protected by the Departmental Committee [for attention to the displaced], and the possibility of these lands ending up in the hands of large businesses or, even worse, warlords, while the idea of these campesinos’ return, or of their reparation as victims, is truncated.

The Montes de María are at risk of witnessing an all-out land grab, at the expense of victims who were forced to flee the region for their lives a decade ago. If that happens, the stated goals of the U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” program will be undermined. Displaced populations will not return, the region will undergo a “reverse land reform,” and the population will be even more distrustful of the state. Last month’s court ruling sets a dangerous precedent.


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